In the days before knowledge work was a thing, life was so much easier, at least in some ways.
When work consisted of showing up in a specific place for a given time period, and carrying on a particular quantifiable action, you knew exactly what to do – screw the widget into the hole, or put the topper on the cake, then move on and do the next one, until the bell rang for the end of your shift. Someone else designed the production line, and specified how you performed each action and in what order, and how that interrelated with what everyone else was doing. Your job was simply to, well, do your job, and you knew exactly what the outcome should look like, what was expected of you, and all the factors which could influence your work. Even if it was highly skilled and specialised in nature, your work had clearly defined edges, and everyone knew what it looked like when it was finished.
You didn’t have to think about how you did it, or how you measured if it was done okay. You probably didn’t stay late to finish screwing widgets into holes because you weren’t sure if you’d done enough, and you probably didn’t have nightmares and anxiety attacks about whether you were doing it right overall and progressing in your widget screwing career at the expected rate of change.
Knowledge work is totally different, and we need to strike a delicate and ongoing balance between planning, shaping and defining the work, and actually carrying it out. Even distinguishing between these two simple categories means using different parts of your mind, and that in itself is exhausting. We will take a deeper dive into this subject from the perspective of productivity in book 3.
It’s particularly difficult when you work from home to recognise when you’re ‘done’ – when your work is finished, for the day, for the month, or for the project. For this section, let’s consider it from a boundaries point of view, in terms of establishing where the edge of your work is, and where the rest of your life begins.
If you were screwing widgets into holes, you knew exactly where work stopped. And even if your work was more complex than that, when you arrived at a particular building every day to do it, that in itself constituted an edge. Most people arrived around the same time and left the building around the same hour at the end of the working day.
Of course, you may have had targets and performance indicators to indicate how you were doing, and would have been subject to more formal appraisals and evaluations periodically, but you would probably have continued without more detailed feedback for long periods, while also realising you were putting in similar levels of effort, and generating similar levels of output, as your colleagues.
Once that was done, you could leave and not worry about work till the following day. Your work was contained within a distinct space in your life, and the analogy of a fried egg can help illuminate this point. The yolk is essential -indeed integral to the meal – but it maintains a distinct boundary, while the rest of your life surrounds it, and can spread into the remaining available space in the pan.
As your career progressed and your responsibilities grew, it was natural for things to get a bit runnier and more blended, particularly with work bleeding into personal time and thoughts, if not the other way around. The yolk may have punctured and spread a bit, oozing into your discretionary time as notifications on your phone, or catch-up reading on the train home. It was a tendency you accepted as an inevitable part of the growing seniority of your career, with commensurate rewards, but it was still basically containable. Work happened at work, and life happened elsewhere.
For many people though, the removal of the travel and office boundaries by forced working from home has led to a full-on omelette situation, for which they found themselves totally unprepared. Does this sound familiar?
“How do I know if I have done enough today? What time did I start? What was I doing before and after I started work today, especially if it’s all happening in the same place? If I have constant interruptions from my kids, I don’t know where my work fits in with a shared progress target, I sense that maybe my manager thinks I am not coping or not being productive enough. And now I cannot find that edge any more.
At the very least, if we make an abrupt shift to working from home, life and work become lightly scrambled, perhaps for the first time in our working lives. And for many people, this can be inherently negative and damaging…
This is an excerpt from Finding Your Edge: Establishing and Maintaining Boundaries When You Work From Home, book 2 in the Healthy Happy Homeworking series.